The Simplicity of the Carefree Life

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

—Matthew 6:19-24

As we continue to walk through Matthew’s gospel with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we experience a shift at verse 19 in chapter six. At that verse, we leave behind the text’s three explicit declarations on how to act as a disciple and move toward a subtle commendation on how to love as a disciple.

Let me explain.

In the first part of chapter six, Matthew’s Jesus continues to deliver his Sermon on the Mount, reflecting on the nature of discipleship. Initially, Jesus lists three practices useful yet potentially perilous for the positive shaping of discipleship: giving money to the poor, praying, and fasting. All three are positive when the disciple remembers that these disciplines are meant to focus our lives and others toward God and never toward ourselves. If directed towards God, then each practice shapes a life well, drawing a sharp focus on the presence of God and God’s in-breaking kingdom. If directed towards ourselves, then each practice misshapes a life, drawing focus away from God and upon ourselves as the “celebrated” practitioners and “pious followers” of God. Such a misshapen life forms our hearts into our own image rather than God’s and repeats the failure caricatured in the story of the fall and original sin, i.e., we become the center of our world instead of God.

Taking this warning on how to practice right practices rightly, Matthew moves from how to live to how to love by reminding his readers of another time when followers of God were in need of retraining if they were to make it through their journey of faith. Recall the words from the gospel cited above: “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal . . . .” In other words, the readers of Matthew’s gospel remember Israel’s own journey of faith when Israel fled Egypt, relying on the food provided from heaven, a food that would “rust.”

In the story of the flight from Egypt in Exodus, God sends bread each day to be collected for that day’s meals. Any bread that is stored for the next day turns to worms (or more specifically is consumed by worms and spoils), i.e., it “rusts” or is “eaten away” as the original Greek might more literally read. The story of Exodus 16 is a story about a people in danger who learn to trust God’s enduring presence and certain provision despite evidence to the contrary and all the obstacles in place.

In the Exodus story, as long as Israel trusted, loved God, then Israel continued its journey toward the Promised Land. When Israel trusted, loved things, i.e., bread or idols or fear, then Israel’s journey stalled, strayed, or stopped. That is, the story of the Exodus and its manna from heaven is a story—in part—about training how to love rightly and what to love when many alternative loves are available to us.

Bonhoeffer correctly identifies what seems to be pivotal verse in this particular lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Zeroing in on verse 24 and that verse’s warning about not serving two masters, Bonhoeffer concludes that the declaration that all lives require additional resources to continue is the heartbeat of this particular passage.

We are not self-sufficient creatures. We require external aid, i.e., water, food, wisdom, society, rules, friends, etc. With the inevitable need to choose some aid before us, the question for a disciple is not whether to choose but which to choose. Will we choose—i.e., love—mammon (or things) and wealth as the missing ingredient necessary to make our lives successful and prosperous? Or, like the disciples following Moses across the wilderness of Sinai, will we choose—on our best days—the supplier of the mammon as the missing ingredient necessary to make our lives and journey possible?

Things and stuff, as it turns out, are important for the journey, but the supplier of these things and stuff is most important because things supplied are a manifest evidence of the love of the one offering the gifts. The things are not that love itself nor to be loved, but the things represent that love and the one loving. Therefore, having the necessities of life are important. However, those necessities only serve as a reminder that a provider’s love offers these gifts and it is the provider who enters into a loving relationship with us . . . not the things. In other words, if we love what is provided rather than the provider, we have come up one-step short and ended our love too soon, focusing on the gift rather than the giver.

Such a life loving the thing rather than the provider inverts the roles of provider and provision, seeing what is given as the final object to be pursued and the giver of the gift as the means to be exploited if we are to get to our gifts. Or, to summarize this perversion as others have done, this inverted life loves things and uses people rather than loves people and uses things.

This warning by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel might seem patent and trite. Yet, its message is rarely outdated or unneeded.

Life, including the life of faith, requires something beyond us to succeed. That something includes things and others. What Jesus in Matthew is reminding us is that while a life will involve a mixture of others and stuff, such a life has room for only one love. We may either love others and use the stuff or love the stuff and use others. There does not seem to be room for much else.

In a world where phones and tablets seem to become precious identity statements and where sporting events are defined as much by what is sold during them as by what happens on the field and where people may be converted into poverty and crime statistics and dismissed as quickly and trivially as a segue to a conversation about a new hair style and where my hardest decision of the day sometimes is deciding which tie to wear with which slacks when others would happily trade their homes to live in what I call my walk-in-closet, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simplest things.

Life, it turns out, is not defined by possessions or by being convinced to buy more possessions or by the comforting ease offered in dehumanizing people by making them numbers to be manipulated and managed or by the conversion in my head of a want into a need that elevates the import of matching ties to slacks as a necessary task.

Life is full of necessities. I, we, just need to be reminded what they are.

Thanks, Matthew, for the reminder.

Have a great week.

See you along the way.

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